By J.J. Charlesworth
There’s only one real question about power in the artworld: does it make any difference to the art? Because unless we’re happy with the naive idea that the art that gets made is largely innocent of and untouched by the context in which it is formed or – worse still – that the artworld is really there only to seek out and celebrate the ‘best’ art, then maybe all our talk of power boils down to this: whether the artworld exerts power in the interests of the art, or in the interests of something else. So in a scene whose main attraction is supposed to be the work of artists, but seems in fact ever-more preoccupied with the activities of all the players and fixers who make up the rest of its strange circus, perhaps it’s worth asking how the current state of power interacts with the state of the art.
During the past decade it has become a kind of truism that the artworld has been overrun by the market. Yet while multimillion-dollar auction results, supercollectors and the evergrowing profile of art fairs prey on the imagination of both critics of and apologists for the art of our time, to say that money now dominates is to offer only a very fractured, very partial image of where we are. More on the power of the market later, but at this point it would be more accurate to say that the artworld today is overrun by institutions. Commercial art galleries may have started to feel the grip of the art fairs tightening on their throats, but the last decade is also the decade of the rise of the biennial, and the decade of the rise of the new museum. Institutions in one form or another are more present than ever: well funded and well organised, and more extensive than perhaps at any time in the modern history of art.
Only if you consider biennials and museums to be benign alternatives to the market would you see the rise of the market as a particular problem. But to do so misses the fact that both the art market and the nonmarket sector have grown together, symbiotically. The interrelations between ‘public’ and ‘private’ have evolved, and what we have now, in 2011, is a tense mix of the old and the new – the old world of the commercial gallery and the national museum, and the new world of the contemporary art fair and the international temporary exhibition.
That this great fleet of institutions has evolved together doesn’t mean that they are identical, but rather that their fortunes are intimately linked. Galleries, art fairs, art biennials and art museums now operate in a seamless, networked flow of exchanges between influential individuals who oversee the complex negotiation of who to show and why. Dealers, art fair directors, museum directors and biennial curators all interact hyperactively. Curators and museum directors sit on panel discussions at art fairs while gallerists and art fair directors sit on panel discussions at biennials.
There are those who think that there is something unseemly about this promiscuous exchange between the public and the private, possibly something that’s ethically wrong, that’s somehow corrupt. Those critics hold on to the old notion that public institutions have a responsibility to such civic ideals as impartiality and objectivity, or even that the public institution can operate as a corrective or at least an opposition to what happens elsewhere.
But in 2011, the promiscuous interaction between institutions is all there is. This is because public institutions no longer defend an ‘inside’ from something ‘outside’. The old national museums or academies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have defended such ideas as tradition, national culture, respectable moral values or craft skills from the modernist barbarians at the gate (who, by the way, tended to show in commercial galleries). Conversely, the post-1968 ‘radical institution’ defended alternative values: those of political or dissenting art, of antitraditionalist concepts of creativity and of noncommercial forms of production and organisation, from the ‘outside’ – the big, bad, conservative, capitalist market.
Now both models of the institution as something separate, pursuing an agenda in some way distinct from the ‘outside’ of commercial culture, are utterly, conclusively dead. The old national institutions no longer defend any notion of continuity, tradition or national identity. The post-1960s ‘radical institution’ is disappearing as a publicly funded alternative to a conservative culture. Why? Because the wars fought over contemporary art since the 1960s – the battles for conceptualism, for postmedium, poststudio art, for political ‘critical’ art – have been won. That is to say, every institution, every biennial, every art fair, every gallery and every museum today can accommodate the spectrum of critical or not-so-critical art; every art fair can have its ‘critical’ project for collectors to visit before they buy the limited-edition documentation of that 1970s performance artist; every art museum can have its newly canonised 1970s performance artist as artist-in-residence, while the Middle Eastern video art runs in the galleries on the floor above, and the show of sculptures from that well-known collector’s private collection sits on the floor above that. And every private collector can open his own museum-quality show of sculptures from his own collection, which no longer needs to go into a museum because that collector’s own purpose-built museum has just opened.
So in 2011 what makes art contemporary, as opposed to modern, is nothing more than the lack of friction between the institutions that run the artworld, and the syncing of their values. That lack of friction is the consequence of the disappearance of debate within the social elite over the value, identity and purpose of art. Where once upon a time to dislike modern art would have led to the disliker being categorised as reactionary, today if you don’t like contemporary art you are merely thought of as uncool.
Without strong differences between the artistic, cultural and political outlooks that defined the old institutions, the divisions between the institutions of the artworld have become more porous, hazier, less distinct. Everything happens inside the institution, because the institution is everywhere; even though it appears that there are formal differences between ‘types’ of institution, they are merely different nodes in the circuit of flow that is ‘the contemporary’. And in such a situation, because the culture of contemporary art has become homogeneous, inclusive and dispersed throughout these institutions, where there is no decisive or critical distinction between the values of one against another, it is only natural that what becomes prominent is not the meaning of the art, but the presence and visibility of those who make the decisions – the curator, the museum director, the gallerist, the art fair manager.
Of course, they wouldn’t be in a position to make those decisions if it was not for what is peculiarly new about the artworld today: it is subject to the greatest flow of private wealth committed to art – contemporary art – that human culture has ever seen, so vast it makes the Medicis and the Gettys look like stamp collectors. The great global expansion of wealth over the last decade has fundamentally altered not only the scale but the balance of influence of the different institutions of the artworld. Because as this spectacular florescence of money has filtered through the networks that constitute the totality of the artworld, it has swelled them and extended them, but it has also changed their centres of gravity. It flows through the galleries to artists, through galleries to the directors of art fairs and into the public museums and into the foundations. The institutions of the artworld, in the final instance, manage the flow of this great wealth, channelling it, reconverting it into altered forms, displacing it, further or nearer, from the primal scene of the market, making possible a quasi-infinite range of artistic forms and practices. But who controls this has changed, from the old world to the new, and consequently there are winners and losers. The smaller, older private galleries that used to be the first gatekeepers and confidants of an opaque and intimate group of collectors, find themselves increasingly dependent on the favour of the big fairs, who have become the gatekeepers to a vastly more public and visible congregation – the international collector. It is the art fair that dictates the visibility of a gallery to this new constituency. Meanwhile, public institutions find themselves having to respond to the intellectual and critical influence of the big biennials, whose curators are more mobile, responsive and footloose, able to move and to make contacts in the fluid postnational flow of the globalised artworld.
What about the art? It’s a subtle shift, and no one has quite noticed, but artists are no longer in control. Artists may make diamond-encrusted skulls, or build temporary discursive spaces for the thinking-through of alternative modes of practice, but whatever they do, an institution is there to accommodate them. And because the institution of contemporary art believes itself to be liberal, tolerant, pluralist, inclusive, nonpartisan, wide-ranging, it neutralises the tension that has historically accompanied the activity of artists – their capacity to confront orthodoxy and its control of the public realm and over the public imagination. Unlike modernist artists, artists today no longer have to build their communities in the face of adversity – not for nothing did artists once create their own institutions – the Salon des Refusés, the Vienna Secession, the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College, etc…
Does this have an effect on art? Perhaps it’s what gives much contemporary art its feeling of passivity and weightlessness. Perhaps it’s what gives the experience of art fairs, galleries and biennials that strange aura of lukewarm euphoria, their audiences polite, well-behaved, with their mixture of enthusiasm and indifference. No need to fight for your public, they are already waiting. But perhaps that’s the price of an easier, more professional, more comfortable life. Welcome. Come on in. You can do whatever you like here, and the lighting is excellent.